In the last few weeks, we’ve considered various ways in which we might communicate with plant spirits, work with them, and engage in spirit journeys with them. In this post, I am beginning to make the transition to talk about plant medicine and herbalism for a few weeks–both medicine of the body and medicine of the soul. I think that herbal medicine is something incredibly powerful to add to any earth-based spiritual based practice, both to keep you in good health and to create inter-dependency between you and the living earth. In order to do that, I wanted to talk today about plant spirits and the connection between medicine for the body and medicine for the soul. To do this, we’ll delve into animism and an animistic worldview as well as consider deepening plant relationships.
Medicine of the Body
Plants have physical bodies and various kinds of chemical constituents that make up those physical bodies. Over millennia, humans have come to depend on those chemical constituents and use them for a variety of healing practices. And so, on the basic level, plants have physical bodies which can aid healing and supporting humans’ physical bodies. As a specific example: the chemical compounds in Reishi mushroom have been well studied scientifically; we know that this fungus fights cancer and free radicals and boosts the immune system, among many other things. It has specific compounds that combine in the body and that can be directly observed and measured. If we took this mushroom extract every day, we would gain the physical benefits of Reishi. For some herbalists, particularly those adopting our radically positivistic and rationalistic culture–that information is enough. It is enough to know that Reishi can support the immune system, and so, giving reishi to someone with a compromised immune system is likely to help.
Even most of today’s modern pharmacology movement is mostly derived from plants. For example, one primary constituent in Bengay, Terrafreeze, or IcyHot is methyl salicylate, which is found in black birch or wintergreen. When you smell these plants (or chew some wintergreen gum) you’ll smell a minty kind of smell–that is the methyl salicylate. While methyl salicylate is now synthesized in a lab, it was, for many years, derived from natural sources. I am torn about the synthesis of plant compounds–on one hand, I’m glad that black birches aren’t being cut down to put Bengay or IcyHot on the shelves. On the other hand, synthesis removes us further and further from the spirit of the plant; as though the essence of the plant can be broken down into specific molecules only. One of the issues of concern to many herbalists is illustrated in this example–for most of human history, whole plants were used in healing. Modern pharmacology, however, seeks to isolate and explore individual chemical components (when each plant contains hundreds, if not thousands). We are no longer concerned with whole plants as healing agents, but rather, isolating, extracting, and synthesizing small parts of their healing potential. From my own perspective as an animist, this creates distance between us, the plant, and the healing spirit of that plant–and that is a problem.
In sum, for medicine of the body, we can look at what science says, or what common folk knowledge over centuries tell us: hawthorn works on the heart, catnip works on the GI system and nervous system, black birch infused oil helps sore muscles, and so on. All of this medicinal content is found in material medicas and are incredibly useful. They are useful, in part, because the chemicals contained within the physical bodies of the plants are predictable; the hemlock reishi doesn’t change its chemical composition much, if at all, from occurrence to occurrence; the mushroom is what it is, and it offers its healing energy to all. But in some ways, this medicine for the body is knowledge created by humans, for humans, to help humans cure physical ailments–and is therefore only a piece of what the plants can offer us in terms of medicine.
There are lots of ways to create medicine for the body, and we’ll explore some of them in upcoming posts: salves, oils, tinctures and teas are just a few of the ways!
Medicine of the Spirit and Animism
By connecting with the spirit of the Reishi (which appears to me as a male), using many of the techniques described in my last posts, I know that Reishi can offer inner healing in addition to the benefits he offers my physical body. Reishi help our spirits overcome trauma and suffering; it breaks down the old so that the new can be kindled. This is what Reishi does here in my ecosystem; by observing Reishi in his natural environment, I understand the role this mushroom plays and can use it for healing of a different kind. This kind of “spirit” healing, however, requires a few things. First, I believe it requires conscious acknowledgment of the work to be done and the connection to the spirit of the plant (in some capacity). Second, it requires reverence and respect of the plant, and that is built through connection (either for yourself or by way of a skilled medicine maker/herbalist). Will it still work for you without those things? I don’t know, but I kind of doubt it.
And so, when it comes to plant medicine, I don’t think its enough to learn about the physical body of the plant and what it may do in certain circumstances. I believe that working with the plant’s spirit is critical to working with that plant and the medicine it offers. That is, developing a relationship with the plant spirit, you can learn more about the plant, its healing medicine, how to use it, and I believe, increases its effectiveness for you as a medicine maker or medicine taker. There’s lots of discussion about this in the herbalism community; more than once, and by more than one teacher, I was told that in order for a certain plant effect to manifest to me, I had to “develop a relationship with the plant.” Part of that meant working with the plant physically and taking it for healing purposes. But part of that advice was rooted in this animistic worldview, to get to know the plant spirit.
Medicine of the spirit is, then, working on an entirely different level than medicine of the body. Do the physical chemical constituents matter? They matter to the body, but I’d argue, they don’t matter one bit to the spirit. The spirit works in different ways, just as matter in general is of a different nature than spirit. Medicine of spirit is rooted in energy and in a relationship. It is rooted in connection.
This perspective on sacred plant medicine, like everything I write, comes from an animistic worldview. This perspective understands that plants, animals, places (rivers, forests), and many objects (stones), have a spirit/soul and that spirit can be interacted with using various techniques. This perspective understands that all spirits that have agency; they are not necessarily passive recipients of the world around us. This interaction between you and the spirit of other things can lead not only to deep spiritual insights, but cultivating a relationship with this plant can also affect both the non-physical and physical worlds. Most animistic worldviews also recognize that the world of spirit is quite close to the physical world and both affect the other and that there is close interconnection between the mind, body, and spirit. In other words, some of the hard boundaries that are present in the thinking of Abrahamic religions and modern Western culture (that only humans have a soul, that the links between heaven and earth are rigid, or that scientific view that you should believe only in what can be observed) are non-existent in an animist worldview. Further, some animists are non-theistic. Others may believe other things as well; further, they might be monotheists, pantheists, or polytheists. Whether or not you choose to adopt an animistic perspective has a lot of implications for how you interact with the world at large. More specifically, it also influences how you might choose to take up a practice of herbalism and working with sacred plant medicine. For some, the science is enough. For others, it is barely scratching the surface.
There are lots of ways to create medicine for the spirit. Two of the most potent that I know if is spagyric tinctures (plant-based alchemy) and through floral/plant essences (which I’ll be talking about in an upcoming post).
Developing Your Own Plant Relations
In working with medicine of the spirit, its important to develop your own relationship with each plant if at all possible. It isn’t always possible (and we’ll get to why and what to do at the end of this section). But assuming you can, there are a few reasons to try to do so. First, times are changing, the worldwide ecosystem is under stress, and plant spirits are under duress. It might be that 90 years ago, when these flower essences were developed by Bach originally, the plants were in a different place than they are now. Some may now just be struggling to stay alive as a species, which certainly will change their ability to heal and work with you (this is why I argue so strongly for cultivation and regeneration/healing of the land as part of herbalism practice). I wrote about this a lot when I talked about the ash tree earlier on this blog–the Ash tree in America is radically different energetically due to the destruction of nearly all adolescent or large ash trees due to the Emerald Ash Borer. You can’t even begin to work with the ash tree here in the US without acknowledging and understanding this reality. Many healing plants are the same way–American Ginseng being a great example. Ginseng used to be one of our great healers; now, her physical body is being stripped from the landscape. Buying ginseng from an unknown source is highly ethically problematic, and causes problems with plant spirits (and not just ginseng, but potentially, other medicinal root species that are close cousins or that share ecosystems).
Second, it might be that a lesser known aspect (or unknown aspect) of a plant is actually the one that you need for plant spirit medicine. Plants are people; some are straightforward and what you see is what you get (plantain being a nice example–she is consistent and clear in her interactions and healing with humans). Others are quite complex and multifaceted (Elder being a good example). Plants can take on multiple meanings or offer multiple kinds of healing depending on the person. You likely won’t get that from a simple list in a book. You get that from direct experience and interaction. Sometimes, you get that if a human teacher passes it on to you through their teachings or through ceremony. Sometimes, you get it if you spend enough time with the plant.
Finally, plants change based on local circumstances and are individuals. The information I shared above about reishi being able to help break down the old pain is something I learned directly from observing reishi working on the stumps in a logged forest. Maybe the Reishi in non-logged forests doesn’t have that particular quality, but the reishi in my forests absolutely does here due to the logging that takes place in Pennsylvania’s forests. All this is to say that the information in books and lists is useful as a starting point when you have no other knowledge, but as you grow in your own plant spirit communication and herbalism practice, you may develop different meanings. If the plant for you has a different meaning than what is generally known–your spirit may interact with that spirit in a different way. And with subtle energy medicine that is critical and useful.
There are three more points I want to make about the spirit of plants and plant spirit medicine are as follows concerning teachers, experiences, and first-hand experience.
First, I do think that teachers are extremely helpful in learning about both the medicine of the body and of the spirits. I love learning about plants from others. Sometimes, its not even a specific thing I learn about a plant–but rather, a way in which someone interacts with a plant. I remember this a few years ago–I was taking a natural crafts course at the North American School of Bushcraft. It was a great day, and as we were carving spoons and weaving baskets, our instructor talked to us about “sister ivy” and his relationship with poison ivy. This deeply resonated with me–I realized by changing the name from “poison” to “sister” changed everything about how I saw this plant–and led me to write about her about a year ago on this blog. Teachers with these kinds of perspectives are actually quite easy to access in the herbal community; my own two primary teachers both offered me teachings that helped me understand herbalism in both material and immaterial ways. Most herbalism teachers focus on the medicine of the body (some exclusively so), but for those that have eyes to see and ears to hear, the subtle layer of spirit is there. Herbal conferences and gatherings are great opportunities to meet some of the more famous herbalism teachers and see if any of them resonate.
At the same time, understand that nobody should tell you what to experience or “seed” certain experiences for you. Each of us cultivate and have different relationships with plants. A good teacher will share their experience, teachings, and techniques, not force you to think the way they do or believe the way they do. Each of us should have our own opportunity to learn from the plants directly, without interference.
There are also circumstances where a person (due to injury, illness, disability, or lack of access) may not be able to cultivate direct relationships with plants. In this case, a good medicine maker and herbalist can be a real asset. If someone else is making a medicine for you, that connection the medicine maker has with the plant can connect and transfer through to you, and the medicine of the spirit will work well. This is why skilled healers are so effective–they have built their own relationships with plants, and leverage those relationships for the good of others. This can be another result of the above work–the ability to “transfer” that healing relationship to work with others.
So to summarize, healing with plants takes place on multiple levels: the physical chemical constituents of healing plants work on the body, while the subtle energies of the plant work on the spirit. If we connect not only with the body of the plant but with the spirit, it helps the healing of the plant work on those multiple levels, and it honors the plant for the incredible person it truly is. So we’ll explore these different ways of making medicine over the next few weeks, as always, thank you for reading!